The new laws, which made Victoria the first state to criminalise wage theft when they were announced last year, will see employers who withhold a range of entitlements face fines of up to $198,264 for individuals, $991,320 for companies and up to 10 years’ jail time.
The criminalisation of wage theft in Victoria (and later, Queensland) should emerge as a warning to employers who dishonestly withhold employee wages and other entitlements, said Jane Rennie, general manager of external affairs at CPA Australia.
“Employers should proactively assess whether they’re paying their employees correctly,” Dr Rennie said. “The days of assuming they’ve got their payroll right until someone raises an issue are over.”
The laws will also capture employers who falsify employee entitlement records, such as payroll records, and those who fail to keep employment records, when they come into effect on 1 July.
The Andrews government said, when the laws were announced, that the new record-keeping offences are aimed at employers who attempt to conceal wage theft by falsifying or failing to keep records.
Dr Rennie said that while the new laws are not aimed at employers who make honest mistakes, those who do can expect to “get dragged over the coals” for underpaying or miscalculating entitlements owed to their employees as a result.
“The Victorian Act applies to a broad range of employee entitlements, including superannuation payments,” she said.
“It doesn’t apply to employers who make honest mistakes or exercise appropriate due diligence, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get dragged over the coals if they get their employee entitlements wrong.”
As part of the announcement, the Victorian government revealed the establishment of the Wage Inspectorate of Victoria, which will act as a new statutory authority with powers to investigate and prosecute wage theft offences.
Dr Rennie urged accountants to take the opportunity to remind their clients of both the scope and timing of the new state laws.
“Accountants should remind their business clients to review their systems and processes for checking employee entitlements,” she said. “The best way for employers to protect themselves is by having systems in place to detect underpayment.”
Speaking on the announcement of the new laws in June last year, former Victorian Attorney-General Jill Hennessy said employers who commit wage theft deserve to face the “full force of the law”.
“We promised to criminalise wage theft and we have delivered on that promise — employers who steal money and entitlements from their workers deserve to face the full force of the law,” Ms Hennessy said.
“Thank you to the countless employees who have come forward to bravely share their stories to help achieve this reform and hold employers to account.”
Dr Rennie said the criminalisation of wage theft in Australia has in recent months become an initiative increasingly led by state governments after the federal government backed away from the issue.
Labor Leader Anthony Albanese used his budget reply last month to promise to introduce federal laws that would criminalise wage theft — an issue that costs workers $1.35 billion each year, according to PwC estimates.
“Queensland and Victoria have introduced laws to criminalise wage theft,” said Dr Rennie. “The NSW Parliament is currently debating its own wage theft law; however, this concentrates on the collection of unpaid payroll tax from unpaid wages and does not seek to criminalise wage theft.
“The criminalising of wage theft in Queensland and Victoria is a warning to employers who dishonestly withhold employee wages and other entitlements.”
John Buckley is a journalist at Accountants Daily.
Before joining the team in 2021, John worked at The Sydney Morning Herald. His reporting has featured in a range of outlets including The Washington Post, The Age, and The Saturday Paper.